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Smoke and Small Talk: Cigarettes as Social Ritual


Smoke and Small Talk: Cigarettes as Social Ritual


Photo By: Meret Pavlina

By: Meret Pavlina

Let me preface this article by establishing that I am not, by any means, encouraging people to take up smoking cigarettes. There is no doubt in my mind that smoking is a bad habit, with serious negative repercussions upon your health, and a high risk of addiction. However, the proposed Tobacco Free Policy some are attempting to establish on the Southwestern campus is unnecessary, and would impede the social habits of us smokers in the student body.

Just like alcohol, cannabis, and other recreational substances commonly used among college students, cigarettes have disadvantages (such as harmful effects upon your health), but there are also a few advantages. The social aspect of smoking can encourage individuals who otherwise would never have met to converse and bond.

From personal experience, I would say the current attitude regarding tobacco among the majority of Southwestern students is one of neutrality; us smokers are courteous about where we blow our smoke, and non-smokers in are in turn non-judgmental of our habits. The rules in place state that no smoking is allowed indoors, but cigarettes and vapes are permitted if you are at least 25 feet from any building. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. Expecting an entirely tobacco-free campus is naive, especially considering we are a liberal arts school only 30 minutes from downtown Austin. I mean—how can they expect us aspiring intellectuals to discuss and debate the patterns of the world without a cigarette in one gesturing hand?

Despite the very reasonable nature of current tobacco guidelines, Southwestern just joined the Peers Against Tobacco project, and some people are pushing for a campus-wide Tobacco Free Policy, which would prohibit use of all tobacco products, electric or not, on campus grounds. I have spoken with several members of the student body, who are already responding to this proposal with resistance, and I doubt it will go forward.

I asked a few upperclassmen about their tobacco experience at SU, and discovered that cigarettes used to be even more central to student social life. They reminisced about how they met many of their best friends, when they were my age, on the “smoking benches” outside Mabee.

Those benches continue to be a frequent meeting place for student smokers. When I asked Aidan Buck, one of my fellow first-years, about the proposed ban, he told me how he’s experienced cigarettes bringing people together in that very spot. “Sometimes school can be too much for me,” Aidan said, “and going out to the benches to spend 5 minutes talking and smoking with someone can be very intimate and relaxing.”

I’ve experienced cigarettes as a calming agent myself, especially in the chaos and unfamiliarity that all us first-years went through when we first came here. I remember smoking a cigarette on the Kappa Sigma porch for the first time, and feeling more welcome and at-home than I had at any of the university-organized mixers.

I respect the fact that many individuals choose to avoid tobacco use of any kind—I hope I’ll eventually have the strength to abandon the habit myself— but a  campus-wide ban on tobacco would only aggravate smokers in the student body, without motivating many to actually quit smoking. This isn’t high school, and the vast majority of our students are legal adults with every right to smoke or vape as they please. It isn’t in the university’s purview to enforce healthy living habits among its students, and imposing this ban upon us is both unreasonable, and unlikely to succeed.